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UA, ASU lauded for work in field of extraterrestrial life

UA's Lunine elected to National Academy of Sciences

Two researchers from Arizona and Arizona State universities are being hailed in the field of astrobiology.

A well-known planetary scientist/astrobiologist at the University of Arizona has been named to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, and a researcher from Arizona State University has helped discover fossils in sediments near the Mediterranean Sea that are a close analogue to conditions on Mars.

Astrobiology is a cross-disciplinary space science that aims to determine whether life exists (or has existed) beyond Earth – such as on Mars or underneath the water ice on Jupiter’s moon Europa – or elsewhere in the universe through the study of more than 400 distant “exoplanets” discovered to date. In the process, astrobiology helps inform and refine scientific theories of how life arose on Earth more than 4 billion years ago.

Astrobiologists look for common microscopic patterns in fossils and other preserved records of ancient organic material. While attending the Astrobiology Science Conference 2010 near Houston on Wednesday, Jack Farmer of ASU and William Schopf of UCLA reported finding more than 35 well-preserved fossils, about 6 million years old, in a relatively soft type of sulfate-rich soil called gypsum.

The fossils from an evaporated area near the Mediterranean Sea in northern Italy preserve a “diverse assembly” of microbes, including cynobacteria (commonly known as pond scum), single-celled phytoplankton from the water column that once existed above the gypsum, and microscope algae known as diatoms.

“We just didn’t know that fossils could be preserved in gypsum,” Schopf said. This work was “directly stimulated” by the discovery of similar deposits on the surface of Mars detected by instruments on NASA’s Mars Opportunity rover, still in action on the red planet more than six years after landing there.

Finding fossils in gypsum on Earth means that similar areas on Mars “could be a really excellent place to find evidence of ancient life,” Schopf said. The soft soil would be particularly easy for future Mars landers and rovers to dig up and deposit in small ovens, where the sample could be dissolved in water and then heated to determine what sort of organic molecules are in the sample, he added.

“No one [person] can do this stuff,” Schopf said. ASU and the UA “are at the forefront of work of this sort. They really stand out among American institutions of higher learning.”

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ASU’s Farmer, who works in the recently constituted ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration, told a media briefing that he was “very optimistic” that astrobiology would continue to receive robust funding from NASA and other organizations.

Chris Impey, deputy head of the UA astronomy department, presented a talk at the Houston meeting looking ahead to the next 50 years of astrobiology.

“State-wide, our planetary science and planet-hunting capabilities are strong and growing,” Impey said in an email. The UA’s Lunar and Planetary Lab “is in the running for each of the few new NASA mission opportunities. Our next step at UA will be to develop an astrobiology graduate program.”

UA's Jonathan Lunine

On Tuesday, Jonathan Lunine, a professor in UA’s department of planetary sciences, was elected into the National Academy of Sciences, one of the most prestigious honors that can be accorded to a U.S. scientist or engineer.

As the only new member from Arizona, Lunine joins 72 new members of the national academy, and 14 international electees, who are being recognized for distinguished and continuing research achievements.

Lunine’s diverse research ranges from Saturn’s hazy moon Titan – where the Cassini mission that he is heavily involved with has found intriguing lakes of liquid hydrocarbons – to distant brown dwarf stars, He also is a member of the planning teams for the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, known as the James Webb Space Telescope, and the next NASA robotic mission to Jupiter.

In a statement issued by the UA, Lunine said he was thrilled and “somewhat humbled to join this distinguished group of the finest American scientists.”

The UA department of planetary sciences, the Lunar and Planetary Lab and Steward Observatory “embody the kind of interdisciplinary, open and entrepreneurial environment that has fostered many new ideas and the freedom to pursue them,” Lunine said.

“The faculty is outstandingly collegial, the students are great and the leadership at the Lunar and Planetary Lab and the dean’s office are crucial to create this kind of environment. All this has played a very large part in my career and I am very grateful for that.”

Lunine also thanked scientist Carl Sagan, a pioneer of astrobiology before the field was given the moniker, for inspiring him by replying to a letter Lunine wrote to Sagan while in high school. Sagan wrote an encouraging two-page response to Lunine’s query about how to become an astronomer.

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“What that illustrates to me is how important it is for working scientists to encourage children who are curious about the world to pursue their passion for science,” Lunine said.

“Lunine is a standout and it's well-deserved that he got the high honor of academy membership,” said the UA’s Impey.

Hawking's concerns dismissed

Participants in the astrobiology media briefing dismissed recent well-publicized comments by prominent physicist Stephen Hawking on a Discovery Channel TV series that Earth was exposing itself to risky contact with alien life forms through such work.

Earth has been broadcasting its presence to the universe via powerful TV signal towers and military radar systems “for many decades, and we’re going to keep broadcasting,” said Steve Squyres, a planetary scientist at Cornell University who is the principal investigator for the two current Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.

Mary Voytek, astrobiology senior scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC, added, “We are interested and prepared to make the discovery of any kind of life” elsewhere in the universe.

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1 comment on this story

May 1, 2010, 8:46 am
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The various scientists involved in this work would benefit enormously from the information Billy Meier has already published on Mars, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, etc., especially since NASA itself often confirmed and corroborated his accuracy, without know ing they were doing so ofo course. (One scientist who publicly stated his support for Meier’s information and evidence is David Froning, an astrophysicist with much experience in the defense industry as well. And Michael Malin also commented favorably on the Meier case - until “something” happened to persuade him to retreat from any further support for it.)

For instance, Meier scooped NASA by 32 years on the fact that Mars had water, microscopic life forms and that it’s environment was hostile to life. Likewise, he published the information that Io was the most volcanically active body in the solar system before NASA made the announcement,which was the most important finding of the Voyager mission.

And, while Hawking is wrong on a number of things pertaining to extraterrestrial life, he is correct in that we should not gratuitously announce both our existence and location, since there indeed are hostile extraterrestrial races, as well as benevolent ones, as is consistent with life and reality.

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I won’t push my luck and give you every pertinent link. Suffice it to say that if you don’t find something through the search feature, please contact me and I’ll try to assist you.

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NASA's Cassini's spacecraft captured this image of Saturn's Titan moon.